Manchester United's Dimitar Berbatov close to top speed
Manchester United 5 Birmingham City 0: The complex temperament of Dimitar Berbatov is as beguiling as ever.
Even in the midst of his third hat-trick in 2010-11, which sets him on course to match Alan Shearer's 15-year-old Premier League record of five in a season, you occasionally saw the eyes roll at a team-mate lacking the imagination or vision to pick him out.
Berbatov does tend to operate on a different footballing plane from most. There was honesty, not pomposity, about the equine metaphor he used last season to describe the way he works. "Sometimes you get players who are blinkered like horses, can only see straight ahead, and when they turn, their whole heads turn, but then there are other players who have [peripheral] vision," the Bulgarian said. "Without even looking left or right they know what to do, what to do with the ball. I try to be like that."
Sir Alex Ferguson knows it's a process of reading Berbatov. It's a few years since the United manager declared that he thought "other players are beginning to understand what type of player he is". It doesn't take as long when that player is Wayne Rooney – he, the nexus of almost everything United did, exchanged four passes with Berbatov before crossing for Ryan Giggs to dispatch a third goal which Ferguson felt was "very, very exciting". But the workhorses are getting the point as well.
"We know if we get the supply line to him he's going to create for himself and for other players too," observed John O'Shea. "The ball is played up to him and it just sticks to him," added Chris Smalling, another United defender with little to do here on Saturday but stand and stare. "He turns and runs at defenders, that's the thing, and it's really causing a threat. He's got the runners around him with Nani and Wazza running off him. It gives defenders a nightmare."
Though the preponderance of Old Trafford goals – 15 of his 17 have come there this season – suggest he is not entirely a man for all seasons, Berbatov is changing, too. An individual who has spoken of his "dark moments" trying to make it at Old Trafford, he bore a psychological toll last spring when, with Rooney's absence with an ankle injury giving him a heavy responsibility, he failed to deliver against Chelsea in the game which proved critical to the title. But Berbatov has worked harder this season. He was on his knees when he stuck out a leg to intercept a ball intended for Stephen Carr and began the knock-about which delivered for Giggs' goal.
The 37-year-old's own running and precision passing was as pristine as Rooney's. "All the lads are after buying [his new] yoga DVD to keep going. Incredible," said O'Shea. "You see the balance in his feet, the turn of pace he still has. We're going to try and freeze him to try and keep him going for even longer."
All of which was made easier by Alex McLeish's attempt to play a more creative brand of football than has been the recent Birmingham tradition here, allied to uncharacteristic defensive feebleness. "Amateurish" and "criminal" were McLeish's words for the way his defence capitulated. Roger Johnson will have few worse games and goalkeeper Ben Foster looked unsettled.
That is not the sum total of McLeish's difficulties. David Bentley's minimal contribution bore out City chief executive Peter Pannu's defence in Saturday's Birmingham Mail of owner Carson Yeung over the Hong Kong businessman's reticence to sanction more transfer spending. Pannu pointedly said: "most of the purchases have not played much and have not substantially improved the team directly".
McLeish was diplomatic. "I can only ask the board, then it is up to them," he said, but on a television screen behind where he stood, Darren Bent was busily showing what £24m can buy.
"We have managed to get closer to Villa technically over the last couple of years but that is where the similarity ends because they have got much more financial clout than us," McLeish admitted. He insisted that it would be "madness" to sell Cameron Jerome, as it has been suggested he might, and declared that he needed another striker, having missed out on Robbie Keane and Kenny Miller this month.
A Carling Cup semi-final win over West Ham might help his case on Wednesday, though 24 hours earlier United head to Blackpool, where Charlie Adam's desire to leave may force manager Ian Holloway to omit his captain and help United to look that little bit more like "Invincibles". "It won't be for the faint-hearted. The roller coasters will be busy," O'Shea declared. But United are faring well on the Premier League big dipper.
Scorers: Man Utd Berbatov 2, 31, 53, Giggs 45, Nani 76.
Subs: Man Utd Gibson (Carrick, 24), Fabio (Evra, h-t), Owen (Giggs, 55). Unused Kuszczak (gk), Evans, Scholes, Obertan. Birmingham Jerome (Hleb, h-t), Larsson (Fahey, h-t), Garnder (Bentley, 85). Unused Doyle (gk), Jiranek, Bowyer, Zigic.Man of the match Berbatov Match rating 7/10.
Possession Man Utd 61% Birmingham 59%.
Shots on target Man Utd 10 Birmingham 1.
Referee M Jones (Cheshire). Att 75,326.
* On Saturday Dimitar Berbatov became the third player to score three or more hat-tricks in a single Premier League season, following Alan Shearer – who achieved the feat twice – and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
* A Shearer (Blackburn Rovers) 1994-95
* A Shearer (Blackburn Rovers) 1995-96
* R van Nistelrooy (Man Utd) 2002-03
* D Berbatov (Man Utd) 2010-11